Photograph: Tamin

The office of the NGO Sipar in Phnom Penh has a strange smell for Cambodia: fresh paper and books. It’s the kind of smell found at massive bookshops in Bangkok or Singapore, but even in the Cambodian capital it’s hard to come by, as so few places exclusively sell new books in Khmer.

Most books are sold at outdoor stands, wrapped in plastic and printed on cheap paper in black and white - much less appealing than in well-designed modern bookshops. 

"Most people say that Cambodians do not like reading. But I think it’s not true if you work with children," says Sin Sothea, library program coordinator at Sipar.

The big challenge is to get the right books, he says. "If you work with children, you know that they like reading if they have access to books they want to read." 

Sipar has been bridging this gulf for the last 16 years by producing its own range of colourful, illustrated titles targeted at children, young people, and low-literacy adults after it found that most foreign publishers thought they were not worth it financially.

In parts of South-East Asia, finding appropriate books for young readers and then getting them to communities can be a struggle for NGOs and community groups.

Poorly paved roads and extreme weather like monsoon rains can disrupt the movement of books, especially to far-flung villages in countries like Cambodia and Laos. Deeper challenges exist as well, like economic demands that pull children and young people out of school and keep them from reading later in life as adults. 

Sipar has succeeded in bringing books to children and communities, in the form of mobile libraries in vans and on motorbikes, and also by building permanent reading centres.

In neighbouring Laos, Creative Literacy Laos also works to get children’s books to villages in Khammouane Province. They, however, have faced a few more bumps in the road than Sipar to establish rural reading centres. 

"Whenever I bring books down [to village schools], I have to organise it myself from the capital. It involves an eight-hour car journey, five-hour boat journey, and the onward journey: pushing and pulling books through rapids on small wooden boats, or on motorbikes and on your back," says board member Karlee Taylor.

Creative Literacy Laos also struggles to find appropriate books, as all titles have to be approved by at least three different government ministries within the Communist government. Taylor regularly scours local publishers' catalogues for new and interesting titles as her NGO is unable to publish itself. 

However, both NGOs have found success in training teachers and local librarians in better ways to teach reading so that they highlight its fun and creativity, rather than simply the rote learning method taught in Cambodian and Lao universities. 

"We train teachers in creative literacy, and can see what a positive impact these methods of learning have for their students, can provide them with the confidence to do active learning in their communities," says Taylor. 

The impact of irregular access to books - as well as skilled reading teachers - can be seen in the complex literary rates, which vary between age groups, ethnic groups, and rural and urban populations in both countries. In Cambodia, the literacy rate for under-15s was 90 per cent in 2015, according to government figures but 78.1 per cent for 15-45s. In Laos, the literacy rate was 73 per cent in 2013, according to UNICEF, although levels also vary between the generations. 

While getting children the tools to read is a challenge, keeping them reading is another issue, says Santosh Khatri, chief of education at UNESCO in Phnom Penh, which runs its own literacy campaigns.

"What we need to remember is literacy is a skill, which if not practised is lost," says Khatri. 

In both countries, children are needed to help out on the farm, as many rural families survive on subsistence agriculture. In urban centres like Phnom Penh, they may drop out to find factory or construction work. 

While children may learn to read while young, high drop out rates in grades 6, 7, and 8 can undo that achievement. "You have plenty of literature globally which confirms that if you are struggling to make ends meet on a day-to-day basis, literacy will fall down pretty low in your priorities," he says. 

Khatri says that much success has been made by NGOs like Sipar that teach reading alongside skills have been particularly effective. Sipar, for example, has a selection of books on practical skills like planting vegetables and animal husbandry, so older readers can find economic value in maintaining skills learned as children. 

But he says it’s also important for NGOs to emphasise that reading can be something for the whole family to enjoy: children can share their skills with their parents, and vice versa.

"The stories we heard were really inspiring, older women coming and saying now I can come home and sit down with my children and help them with their homework. I can find that my child is not reading properly [and help them]," he says. 

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